This post was contributed by Aly Sterling.
Even when circumstances are “normal,” wrangling and energizing your nonprofit board can feel challenging. You have to keep meetings on track (and on time), create an environment where all voices are heard, and secure buy-in for upcoming initiatives.
And that’s only if you’re able to get your entire board in the room at a time that works with everyone’s busy schedules!
In many ways, virtual board meetings are more convenient than their in-person counterparts. There’s no need to drive to a meeting location and deal with traffic or parking, which increases meeting attendance. And the flexibility of an online format means your board can have wider geographic diversity, expanding your reach to new areas.
However, with the challenges of technology, distractions of the home environment and other factors for disengagement, your board’s conversations may not be as productive or dynamic. To ensure your board makes progress even in a remote environment, take a focused and relationship-based approach.
At Aly Sterling Philanthropy, we’ve helped countless nonprofits evolve their boards and grow their missions. To help you navigate board governance as the era of COVID-19 continues, we’ve compiled the following recommendations:
These tips will be most applicable to board leaders who already have a strong foundation in place. If you’re looking for a larger overhaul rather than a few quick ideas, you may want to consider partnering with a nonprofit consultant to provide more comprehensive recommendations. A consultant can conduct a thorough analysis of your board’s work, architecture, interpersonal dynamics and procedures in order to find the best path forward to growth.
Everyone on your board will benefit from open lines of communication that are supported by adequate resources and tools. This is even more critical in a remote environment, where a member can’t just whisper to their neighbor if something doesn’t make sense or they’re missing a document.
First, make sure each of your board members is well-informed regarding your nonprofit’s mission and work. Newer members in particular may feel uncomfortable articulating the specifics of your strategic plan and ongoing initiatives. However, by equipping them with your strategic plan, board policies and other informational resources, they’ll be more confident to advocate for your cause.
But this flow of information isn’t just limited to new board members; in fact, it helps to think of orientation as an ongoing process. Be sure to share regular updates about your organization’s needs, challenges and successes with experienced members as well
Next, consider the more formal communication infrastructure of your board. It goes without saying that each of your meetings should be planned in advance with a thorough (yet streamlined) agenda and documented during the meeting by a designated secretary. These resources will form the backbone of your meetings as well as provide a legal record of votes and other important information.
If you use board management software, you’ll be able to distribute necessary documents in a dynamic meeting agenda. This centralized hub will keep everything organized and provide a way to clearly assign the next actions. That way, you’ll be able to avoid logging into the next meeting and realizing a critical task was left incomplete out of confusion.
Your board management software may also serve as the venue for the meeting if you choose a platform that offers video calling. Holding the meeting alongside your agenda and document center allows for easy access to everything at once.
No matter what kind of video software you use, it’s best to handle troubleshooting ahead of time so you don’t waste any time in the meeting. You also may want to provide a quick guide to virtual meeting etiquette that explains considerations like microphone muting and reaction protocol.
Effective management of your board members starts with a solid understanding of who they are as individuals. When you operate with knowledge of each person’s strengths, weaknesses, and motivations, your arguments will be more persuasive and you’ll be able to engage them in conversation more effectively.
Start by understanding each member’s role on the board. This includes their defined role and any committee memberships as well as any less formal roles. In addition to understanding which board member is responsible for essential functions like fundraising and fiduciary obligations, consider which additional skills your members may bring to the table.
After all, your board members were likely selected based on characteristics like strong community ties, business connections, influential careers and of course a commitment to your mission. When you understand your board members’ skills and specialties, you’ll be better able to make the most of everything they have to offer. For example, as described in Double the Donation’s guide to corporate sponsorships, a board member with a direct point of contact at a large company can help increase your likelihood of securing a sponsorship.
Finally, put effort into getting to know your board members outside the boardroom. While a respectful working relationship is what’s most important, it never hurts to connect on a one-on-one level as well. Consider scheduling “coffee chat” calls with board members while you aren’t able to get together in person. These personal connections can advance your nonprofit’s interests by creating a more constructive and trusting environment. We’ll discuss other ways to facilitate this environment virtually in the next section.
When you aren’t able to gather in person, it can be challenging to create the same spirit of discussion and openness that you’d built in the boardroom. However, with a little more intentionality and effort, you can still establish healthy working relationships with and among your board members.
Consider the following ways you can encourage your members to bond while still moving your mission forward:
In addition to building trust and security on an interpersonal level, make sure these values are built into your policies and tech systems. For instance, make sure your board meeting software and any documents are password-protected and secure. This will preserve the confidentiality of sensitive information and enable your members to share dissenting opinions without hesitation.
When you can only interact with board members remotely, it may be more difficult to stay aligned on what is most important for your work. When new problems (or gaps in funding) arise, the natural response is often to create brand-new solutions and programs.
However, this response can have harmful side effects on the efficacy of your board. With limited time and resources, adding new elements can stretch your staff and budget too thin. There will be less effort to dedicate to what matters most and what your nonprofit is uniquely good at.
The attention of your board should be hyper-focused on a handful of key organizational priorities, as outlined in your nonprofit’s strategic plan.
When making a decision in your next virtual meeting, your board should consider whether the outcome is compatible with these key priorities. Some activities, such as donor stewardship, will always be in line with your broader efforts, while a brand new fundraising event may be best left on the drawing board.
Instead of starting a new program to serve a new need, try looking for a partner to help fill that void.
As an example, consider you’re on the board for a homeless shelter. You may realize that your residents have a need for interview-appropriate attire, and the urge may be strong to start a drive and launch a clothing closet at your facility. Before spearheading a brand new program, take a moment to determine whether it complements or distracts from your main priorities. Usually, it’s a smarter decision to look for community partners you could collaborate with to meet this need, such as local consignment stores that already operate a similar program.
By maintaining your focus on just a few priorities (we recommend three), you’ll be able to play to your strengths and become even better at the work you already excel at. Instead of creating new programs, look for ways to improve your efforts surrounding those priorities.
For instance, consider bringing in a nonprofit consultant to elevate and refine a current practice. The Aly Sterling guide to hiring a fundraising consultant recommends entering the process with a well-defined project, so by focusing on your top priorities you’ll be able to hone in on what needs improvement.
To summarize, engaging your nonprofit’s board in a virtual environment requires a solid infrastructure, extra intentionality around relationships, and a strong focus on top priorities. The strategies in this guide can help you maximize the efficacy of your nonprofit’s board long after remote meetings are required.
Author: Aly Sterling
Long before Aly Sterling founded her eponymous consulting firm, she was solving the unique yet similar problems encountered by nonprofit organizations.
Her decision to start her own business in 2007 was driven by her belief in leadership as the single most important factor in organizational success, and her determination to work with multiple causes at one time to scale societal change.
Aly’s expertise includes fundraising, strategic planning, search consultation and board leadership development for the well-positioned nonprofit. She is regularly sought for comment by trade and mainstream media, including the Chronicle of Philanthropy and U.S. News & World Report. She has contributed to publications of BoardSource and The Governance Institute, as well as the Toledo Chamber of Commerce and The Giving Institute.